Damian Thompson’s take on the music CD for the papal visit

Damian Thompson has rained vituperation down upon a music CD prepared in advance of the Holy Father’s visit to the UK.

Papal visit CD: musical atrocities that make the Birdie Song sound like Mozart 

[I admit that I didn’t know what "The Birdie Song" was, but when I clicked the youtube video embedded in Damian’s post, I – too my everlasting horror – recognized it.]

Despite everything I’ve written about the incompetence of its organisers, I firmly believe that Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain needs to be a success. Time is running out. The sad trendies of Eccleston Square [For US readers, Eccleston Square is the location of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales] have done enough damage without them handing their critics fresh ammunition at this late stage. My heart sank when I saw that the papal visit team had released two tracks from the official “Pilgrim Journey” CD that comes with the (expensive) tickets for papal events. But nothing could have prepared me for the awful reality.

I’ve just played “Urban Pilgrim (Reprise)” by Alessandro Cherin and “Deus Tuus Deus Meus” by Fr Gerard Bradley to my colleagues in the Telegraph newsroom. And they’re keeling over in embarrassment. “Urban Pilgrim” is described by a friend as “the stuff they play on planes when they switch off your in-flight movie as your prepare to land”. As for Fr Bradley, his vocation does not lie in the area of composition – and the singer has the upper register of a deputy accounts manager on a karaoke machine. [Update: I’ve just discovered that the poor guy is a seminarian who was presumably pushed into this. So, feeling guilty, I’ve taken out his name. His voice is perfectly pleasant – it’s just that the nonsense he’s singing is pitched far too high for him.]

It doesn’t give me any pleasure to make fun of this crap, because it proves that the Church in England and Wales is still in the grip of philistines. I’m not suggesting that visitors to papal events should be given a CD of Renaissance polyphony. [How about the new Gregorian chant CD from the sisters at Le Barroux?] There is such a thing as good Christian rock and pop music; it’s just that Catholics don’t produce it. Instead, “with-it” monsignors and their mates force-feed the faithful with sclerotic folk-style antiphons – or worse.  [The cuts I have heard, and I am not sure I need to hear more, are imbued with the sentimentality that characterizes most of the ditties written for World Youth Day gatherings.  So, I wonder who the target audience was for this CD?]

Seriously, why didn’t the tone-deaf papal visit team just release the song on the video below? It would be no less humiliating for Catholics.

Don’t take his word for it.

Listen and decide for yourselves.

How to describe my impressions as I listened to the tunes? 

I imagine this is what it would be like to be waterboarded first with with Robinson’s Barley Water and then with Lyle’s Golden Syrup.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Marcin says:

    OK, I’ll be the first one.

    Track #1 – I can’t even chill-out with this music. It’s of the style that always makes my blood pressure and hart rate rise and introduces inexplicable state of anxiety.

    Track #2 – Poor guy’s voice is acceptable and at least he sings on pitch. I prefer not to disclose my opinion on other aspects of the performance and composition, as it would be not suitable for this forum.

  2. leutgeb says:

    Oh dear and there was me looking forward to my pilgrim pack. I won’t be suggesting that we put it on when we are on the coach to Crofton Park….Still there is that chant CD to look forward to.

    On the plus side, the CTS has brought out a very good little booklet in preparation for the Papal Visit, with passages written by the Pope, lots of traditional prayers including by some of the martyrs, Benedcition, The Rosary etc. A bargain at the usual CTS £1.95.

    Ordinary Catholics of the UK are just going to have to hijack the visit with our embarrassing enthusiasm and home made flags.

  3. chcrix says:

    “There is such a thing as good Christian rock and pop music”

    Proove it Damian.

    These clips are really terrible. They’d be better off downloading some Hatsune Miku clips from youtube.


  4. Rob Cartusciello says:

    I threw up a little in my mouth.

    I think I heard the first track at a lounge in NYC. “Ambient” music is popular in such places. It does, however, have no place in Church.

    The singing on the second track wasn’t horrible, but you could tell it was out of his range. Typical of most contemporary hymns – men can’t sing them.

    It’s a shame the English people have no great tradition of Church Music they could have used.

  5. Sleepyhead says:

    Hmmm… so much for sacred music and Catholic tradition.

  6. JohnE says:

    Marcin, I agree with what you say about track 1. I kept waiting for it to transition to a harder rap beat with someone saying something like “2010!!! Benedict X-V-I in da house!!! It’s the place ta be!! Put ya hands togetha!! All you Pelosis in the house say ‘word’!!”

  7. irishgirl says:

    That first track did sound like something you’d hear on an airplane-or maybe even ‘elevator music’.

    The second one? I felt sorry for that poor fellow who was singing. It was as if he was still a boy soprano in choir.

    Yech-the so-called ‘composers’ should go back to music school and LEARN how to write MUSIC! I mean ‘real music’…not this unsingable ‘dreck’!

    Damian was on the money with this one!

    I hope that the Holy Father doesn’t cringe when he hears this stuff!

    ‘The Birdie Song’-now that was kind of funny! Is that the same thing as ‘The Chicken Dance’?

  8. Supertradmum says:

    I am weeeeeping…what happened to good taste and classical Church music? The first track sounds like something from a techno-bar, and the second, well, it is not first rate.

    As to the “Chicken Dance”, which people do at ballgames here in the Midwest, which is the same as the “birdie dance”, are people going to do THAT at one of the Papal Masses?

    For the record, I do not like modern pop or rock Christian or Catholic music. Banal, sentimental and like Coke commercials plus bad theology most of the time.

  9. Andrew says:

    Beautiful pieces! I loved both of them. I was transported instantly into a waiting room at a dental clinic.

  10. Archicantor says:

    I have never understood the attitude prevalent in many Christian circles — and these recordings strike me as an example of it — that holds that true quality and costliness have no place in the Church’s furnishings, ornaments and arts; that God is better pleased if we don’t waste any money or skill on him; that something amateur, chintzy and “sincere” best reflects God’s loving, welcoming, childlike personality.

    It’s a shame the English people have no great tradition of Church Music they could have used. (Rob C.)

    Would this be an opportune occasion to mention… ahem… the “Anglican Patrimony”?

    There’s a reason that Westminster Cathedral has (or had when I was living in England until earlier this year) the best cathedral choir in the country: the choirmaster and most of the men (altos, tenors, basses) were Anglicans, with a good many of them hired straight from the choir stalls of King’s College, Cambridge. That meant they all knew how to sing Gregorian chant and Palestrina (along with the “Great Tradition of English Church Music”, in which, oddly enough, the best composers have often been Catholics, e.g. Tallis, Byrd, Elgar).

    The new personal ordinariates are unlikely to have the benefit of choral endowments. But they will know what real Church music sounds like, and they’ll put whatever resources they have to good use. Gregorian chant has appropriate pieces for ensembles and congregations of all sizes and abilities.

  11. dahveed says:

    Personally, I like your suggestion of the Benedictine Nuns. They sound wonderful. Tasteful, elegant, wholly appropriate. The first of the two samples had me thinking of some bad video game soundtrack. The second, I’m afraid, was also a miss. I have heard good Catholic pop and rock occasionally on one of the Catholic music podcasts, just not too many. I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid the Chicken Dance. Now I need to figure out how to remove that from my mind. Darn. One can only hope that whatever sound system is employed either utterly fails, or lacks the power to carry the hideous sounds to His Holiness’ ears.

  12. There IS no good Christian pop music. It all sounds the same, and it’s uniformly lousy. Why NOT pass out CDs of polyphony?

    A priest made a comment on Mother Angelica Live years ago that is very apt here: when the sun of culture is low on the horizon, even dwarfs cast long shadows.

  13. Elly says:

    I’m no expert in music but personally I preffered the music from the puppet video.

  14. Archicantor is quite right with regard to the Anglican Patrimony with respect to music! I suspect that other former Anglicans/Episcopalians who read this blog might well agree!

  15. Rob Cartusciello says:

    The blog deleted the “snark” brackets I had around my statement that:

    It’s a shame the English people have no great tradition of Church Music they could have used.

    The Anglican patrimony would have served quite well.

  16. Given that UK Catholicism has Byrd, Elgar, a good chunk of the Highlands and half of the Hebrides, I don’t think you even have to go to the Anglican patrimony for goodies. (Unless you count Newman, Faber, et al as Anglican patrimony.)

    But then, look how embarrassing the music was at most of the US papal stops. When Vespers is the musical high point, you’ve got a priority problem.

  17. Clinton says:

    “All you Pelosis in the house say ‘word’!” — JohnE @ 10:29am

    Probably the single funniest thing I’ve read in weeks. Thanks for that!

  18. Archicantor says:

    Rob C: The blog deleted the “snark” brackets I had around my statement

    Oops… the problem with being guileless is that one misses sarcasm when it’s not enclosed in snark quotes :)

  19. roamincatholic says:

    Right, well, I CAN recommend one song on the album, because I recorded it. Though I have no idea how it got thrown in with that other rubbish.

    Nunc Dimittis by Craig Szmidt, performed by the Schola at Oscott College, is really, really nice. It was a live concert, that we turned in to a CD, so it’s pretty good for that.

    Though, of course, I would recommend buying their CD, “Sedes Sapientiae,” as it is a CD that is full of good stuff, unlike the Papal Visit CD. All of the proceeds of the CD go to their annual charity fundraiser that the seminarians do. http://www.oscott.net

    Maybe I’ll get it up on iTunes.

  20. Hilleyb says:

    Track #1 – I was certain I had heard it before, on a Maxell VHS video head cleaner. Time for an obligatory “brainwashing” joke…?

  21. AnAmericanMother says:

    Oh my dear sweet Lord!

    With all the beautiful riches of Tallis & Byrd to choose from . . . not to mention the other English composers . . . they pick THIS?!?!?!?!?!??

    Have they lost their ever-loving minds, or are they deliberately trying to sabotage the Holy Father’s visit?

  22. loupizzuti says:

    When I listened to the two selections from the CD, I could easily imagine Dan Ackroyd as Leonard Pinth-Garnell taking the CD, breaking it, and saying “My, that was bad, wasn’t it?”. This would be followed by Don Pardo’s voice-over saying “You have just seen another episode of ‘Bad Christian Music’. Tune in again next week.”

  23. Amy MEV says:

    Is it as bad as Kelly Clarkson singing “Ave Maria” to the the Holy father whenhe was here in the states? (I had the unfortunate opportunity to view this when I was searching for the speech he gave and the video came up). It was HORRIBLE. She did an awful job singing (no true emotion, you could tell she had to memorize the words for perhaps the first time (they did not flow easily, and there was simply NO SOUL in her performance. To take THAT song and not do it justice in a performance for THIS Holy Father was shameful. I cannot imagine the pain it caused him!

    Do none of these people (those doing the organizing and making these choices) have ANY CLUE who this man is? Hello?! Music is his third love! (God, Church, then music. Please do not let me have missed something!) My seven year old could do a better job with her homemade instruments!

  24. momravet says:

    This was the best! they could do for the Holy Father. Awful.

  25. AnAmericanMother says:

    Exactly, Amy.

    Even if this were NOT the first visit of the Holy Father to Britain, even if he were a purely secular visitor, gracious hosts would consider that he is a musician of skill and taste and make sure that all the music was the very best that could be provided.

    Given the stellar reputation of the English Renaissance composers and the high renown of English choral music, I would have thought that the folks in charge would have arranged for the very best English choral singers they could find, and lined up a Tallis and Byrd extravaganza. Perhaps leaven it with some Elgar and some very early men like Cornysh or Dunstaple. And maybe sneak in some of the wayward men like Weelkes and Bull, just because their work is so very beautiful.

    We could sing for hours with just English Catholic composers, and for DAYS or WEEKS with all the good English composers. Why this trash?

  26. chcrix says:

    Some thoughts brought on by Archicantor’s post.

    “I have never understood the attitude prevalent in many Christian circles—and these recordings strike me as an example of it—that holds that true quality and costliness have no place in the Church’s furnishings, ornaments and arts; ”

    I tend to think that is an offshoot of the extreme ‘equalitarianism’ that has infected the remnants of what used to be called “Western Civilization”. Woe betide you, elitist if you dare to say that something is qualitatively and objectively better than something else. The war against elitism is a war against quality.

    “God is better pleased if we don’t waste any money or skill on him”

    Hmmm. What was that story about the rich ointment and ‘the poor you have always with you’?

    “that something amateur, chintzy and “sincere” best reflects God’s loving, welcoming, childlike personality”

    It does actually – provided you are a child.

  27. moon1234 says:

    Traditionally English from the Vatican Archives with English!

    How about this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XND3XXqt76Y
    And this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pNk4AiaPn8&feature=related

    Or this LIVE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FQND5YFIqA&feature=related
    Notice the effect on the faithful at around 2:32.

    This is truely sad for the Holy Father. The TAC would do a better job of organizing music. Maybe the honor of music selection should go those new members of the Catholic Church.


    The music selections are so banal and offensive.

  28. AnAmericanMother says:


    I think we should propose an alternative lineup.

    Hosannah to the Son of David (Weelkes)

    Verily Verily I Say Unto You (Tallis)

    O Nata Lux (Tallis)

    Mass for Four Voices (Byrd)

    Rejoice In the Lord Alway a/k/a The Bell Anthem (Purcell) One of the favorites at our parish, although with all the orchestral interludes it’s a bit long for your standard Sunday Mass (our organist winds up having to cut ruthlessly, but fortunately he’s good at improv).

    I’m sure I’ll think of more!! The problem is narrowing down the available material.

  29. Supertradmum says:


    I have been lucky to have sung the Mass for Four Voices by Byrd, as well as the Weelkes piece,when in a choir in California. Also, I attended for a long time the Vespers and Masses at Westminster Cathedral, when the boys were winning all the possible awards, including “best choir” in England for singing the best British, Spanish etc. composers of the Renaissance.

    Such experiences stay with one forever as compared to the immediately forgettable “music” heard on the samples. True art transcends and can transport us into the Presence of God, as the aesthetic experience can bring us closer to Him who is Beauty. I am so happy that you have such a aesthetic sense and wish more Catholics did.

  30. chloesmom says:

    Dear Lord, couldn’t they do any better?? How about Handel, Purcell, Byrd, Elgar, Tallis, Mozart, Haydn — you get the idea. I am flabbergasted that the Holy Father is going to have to listen to this musical pablum, consummate and cultured musician that he is. All the composers who gave such splendid treasure to the Church must be spinning in their graves. Pope Benedict, pack your earplugs in September! Sheesh …

  31. nanetteclaret says:


    Don’t forget Ralph Vaughn Williams’ glorious hymn arrangements.

  32. AnAmericanMother says:

    Hi nanetteclaret!!!

    Absolutely – Down Ampney, The Call (which I have sung as a solo here), Sine Nomine, King’s Lynn . . . . lovely, lovely hymns.

    Also his short anthems. Here’s one we sing a lot:

    O How Amiable Are Thy Dwellings


    If it was good enough for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth . . . .

    (Sung in an obviously nosebleed-high Episcopal church with a chancel choir. Note the ad orientem worship, incense, genuflexions, etc.)

  33. AnAmericanMother says:


    Right you are. This music is for the ages.

    Did you ever sing the Weelkes “Alleluia – I Heard A Voice”? That may be one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. Fortunately our choir sings it regularly. Another beautiful Weelkes is the “Almighty and Most Knowing Lord” for alto and continuo. Neither of them is on line from what I can find, though.

  34. catholicmidwest says:

    Some composers make it their business to write completely unsingable songs, in order to keep listeners in a state of “openness,” which is really terror but they don’t think of it that way apparently.

    I’m thinking of “Our blessing cup,” which ought not only to strike terror into the hearts of anyone with an orthodox heart, but also anyone with EARS.

  35. catholicmidwest says:

    I couldn’t find anyone crazy enough to sing this on youtube, but here’s a piano rendition. You’d better believe in an average choir this sounds like a catfight in progress.

  36. AnAmericanMother says:

    Yeowch! She’s jazzed it up a bit, but it doesn’t make it sound any better.

    I’m not sure it’s the same song. The one I know and loathe has a weird slow rolling arpeggio up a fifth at the end of the chorus, on “the Lord our God”.

    If it’s OCP and Bob Hurd, it’s here:


    It’s a setting of a psalm so there are all sorts of Baptist, Holiness, “Christian” “Rock”, etc. settings.

  37. AnAmericanMother says:


    My cats beg to differ. They would never caterwaul anything so tacky.

    Of course, they are Siamese and thus musically sophisticated.

    My favorite cat song:


    (and yeah, I know Rossini really wrote it for Otello, without the meows, but what the heck.)

  38. catholicmidwest says:

    American Mother,
    That’s the exact arrangement the last choir I belonged to used.

  39. catholicmidwest says:

    American Mother,
    I found someone singing the one you pointed to on youtube. The piano one is the one the choir I belonged to used. It’s fun to sing but it’s definitely not appropriate for worship and not appropriate for an average choir. It’s just tooooo dangerous.

  40. swamp_rabbit says:

    I can’t add too much to this discussion except saying, yeah, this is pretty embarrassing…

    I think it was this type of music that helped keep me away from the Church for so many years as a kid… One of the reasons I loved Midnight Mass so much was the lessons in carols before the Mass, which was the one time of the year the more traditional stuff was sung. That I never missed, even in my years away from the Church.

    I can’t see promoting this sappy stuff helping the new evangelization…

  41. pattif says:

    It’s a shame that whoever put this together (and I gather we’re in for more of the same for hours and hours and hours in Hyde Park) did not spend a little time reading some of what the Holy Father has written about sacred music (or – and this is a really scary thought – perhaps they did). It’s not as if Cardinal Newman hadn’t composed some wonderful hymns himself. Now, a CD of those, perhaps recorded by the English seminary scholas, might have been something we would all want to keep.

  42. AnAmericanMother says:

    “Lead, Kindly Light” is of course the one everybody knows.


    “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” (from The Dream of Gerontius) is not as well known but very fine:


  43. irishgirl says:

    Supertradmum and AnAmericanMother-I love all the ‘offerings’ you showed!

    English church music is so sublime-and one would think that a country known for its ‘putting on a show’ for a secular head of state and various royal occasions would have the sense to know what sort of music to use!

    The Holy Father had better pack earplugs, as chloesmom says!


  44. AnAmericanMother says:

    thanks, irishgirl! Maybe one of the Arbiters of Taste will read this blog and have a revulsion of conscience and ring in some good music . . . . (‘was that a pig I just saw fly past the window?’)


    I agree wholeheartedly that ‘Our Blessing Cup’ is inappropriate. But — too dangerous? What’s that? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Case in point: Last Sunday one of our tenors was leaving for grad school and was asked what he wanted to sing. Mendelssohn’s Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt, that’s what. We hadn’t rehearsed it since last fall, but what the heck. It’s a real barn-burner but we managed it, German and all. Congregation loved it.

    Admittedly we have an outstanding music director. His watchword is, “Even if you make a mistake, so long as you don’t throw up your hands and scream ‘OH NOES!’ chances are nobody in the congregation is even going to notice.”

    I’ve been thinking, and I realize that the ‘Our Blessing Cup’ I know is the refrain for one of the ‘contemporary’ psalm tones (such as they are) out of the Liturgical Press missalette. We jettisoned that for Anglican chant awhile back.

  45. Ah, “The Birdie Song,”…somehow my intuition told me it was a variation of the “Chicken Dance”.
    My sister, while caring for the cockatiel and dog for when we were at summer school, many years ago, taught the bird “The Chicken Dance” song; that was his “signature song”…we never used his talents at Mass, however!

  46. AnAmericanMother says:

    And now for a traditional interpretation of the Chicken Dance:


    (o.k., prairie chicken dance. Whatever.)

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